20 Must-See Movies to Catch at SXSW 2017 - Rolling Stone
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20 Must-See Movies to Catch at SXSW 2017

From Charlize Theron kicking ass to music docs, midnight movies and the making of ‘The Room’ – what to see at the Austin-based film fest

Film-geek auteur projects, psychotronic fanboy-friendly blockbusters, over-the-top midnight movies, under-the-radar indie dramas and more music documentaries than you can shake a D.A. Pennebraker-approved stick at – the annual SXSW Film Festival (kicking off on March 10th) has always specialized in a sort of eclectic, lo-fi-meets-high-art-for-a-Shiner-Bock vibe when it comes to their programming. And this year is no different: You can dip into docs on David Lynch, West Coast hip-hop, Baltimore pest-control and Internet outlaws. Or check out a Big Star & Friends concert movie. Or watch Charlize Theron kick ass. There’s even a poignant character study of a small-town ape. Here are 20 films that attendees should consider must-sees, and that the rest of us not heading to Austin should keep our eyes peeled for.

Emma Franz

‘Bill Frisell, A Portrait’

He may seem a little spacey or distant, and look a lot like your dad. But make no mistake: Bill Frisell is a genuine guitar hero and a major influence on generations of six-stringers that you worship. Frankly, a documentary on this major avant-jazz player has been long overdue, so thank you, filmmaker Emma Franz, for filling the void. There’s praise from folks like Nels Cline, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt and his former collaborator extraordinaire John Zorn, as well as some insights on that gorgeously gossamer, offbeat style from the man himself and a lot of performance footage.


‘The Challenge’

Ever wonder what it would be like to tag along with Qatar’s billionaires on a weekend-long falconing competition? Italian filmmaker Yuri Ancarani’s free-form doc drops you headfirst into a world of men filled with private jets, pet leopards riding shotgun in Lamborghinis and an obsession with the ancient art of predatory bird-taming that borders on mania. If The Eagle Huntress made falconing seem like a noble tradition and a rural cultural heritage, this extraordinary portrait shows the decadent, 1-percent-of-the-1-percent side of the hobby. And you will probably not see a better-looking nonfiction film during the fest.

‘David Lynch: The Art Life’

Who wouldn’t want to spend 90 minutes inside David Lynch’s head? (Think carefully before you answer this.) Jon Nguyen’s portrait of an artist as a slightly scarred suburbia survivor hangs out in the Blue Velvet director’s painting studio and lets him reminisce about his Normal Rockwell-esque childhood, his family and his formative filmmaking years in Philadelphia. Even if you know the man’s story inside and out at this point – and many of us do – it’s fascinating to hear Lynch himself recount, say, the paging-Dr.-Freud time a naked woman stumbled into his cul-de-sac when he was a kid.

‘The Disaster Artist’

You may have heard of – or better yet, have seen – The Room, Tommy Wisseau’s legendarily incompetent cult film; now find out the story behind this midnight movie du jour, courtesy of restless Renaissance man James Franco. Based on Tom Bissell and actor Greg Sestero’s tell-all, it’s a torrid tale of artistic ambitions, D.O.A. line readings and endless impromptu scenes of football-throwing that charts the origin story of the “Citizen Kane of bad movies.” Franco plays the god-awful auteur Wisseau; his brother Dave plays Tommy’s costar/partner in crime, Sestero; Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Zooey Deutch and Sharon Stone show up in supporting roles. Anyway, how’s your sex life?

Andrew Reed


Those who remember the Great Mumblecore Wave of the Mid-Aughts will tell you that filmmaker Aaron Katz was always the one to watch: a formalist with a puckish sense of humor, a feel for taking genres into left-field territory and a peerless way of getting great understated performances out of actors. And like his 2010 masterpiece Cold Weather, this latest Katz project is ostensibly a mystery – involving an actress (Zoë Kravitz), her assistant (Mozart in the Jungle‘s Lola Kirke), a murder and some amateur sleuthing – that’s more concerned with what the characters uncover about themselves. Plus it features an eye-opening turn from Kirke, John Cho as the cinema’s best passive-agressive cop and some of the most colorfully lit, lovingly fetishized Hell-Ay interior design this side of Heat.


Come back with us to the early 1990s, when a Long Beach rap trio called 213 (made up of Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren G) started making some noise, and a post-N.W.A Dr. Dre was holed up in the studio working on a solo joint. As anyone who’s seen a history-of-rap-music doc knows, these guys are about to make history and change hip-hop. But filmmaker Karam Gill and a who’s-who of West Coast heavy-hitter talking heads lay out how it all really went down when it came to crafting the mix of gangsta storytelling, laidback delivery and old-school grooves that made up the “G-Funk” style. From Snoop’s superstardom to snippets of The Chronic‘s recording sessions to how Death Row Records squeezed Warren G out (and thus lead him to solo success), it’s all here.

Nigel Marple

‘Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web’

Being dubbed “the most wanted man online” is a dubious distinction, though one that the Internet business mogul, MegaUpload founder, hacker patron, politician and accused criminal Kim “Dotcom” Schmitz has arguably earned. But as Annie Goldson’s doc points out, he’s also considered by some to be a resistance fighter in the battle for data privacy and the constrictions of copyright law – something this portrait attempts to make a case for as it delves into his legal battles with the U.S. government and various other authorities. Whether you think he’s a hero or a heel, you’re bound to leave the film with your preconceptions shattered.

Stefania Rosini


A bona fide hipster icon and a veteran screen actor with over 100 film credits to his name, the 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton is a living legend – and as this character study proves, the man still has a few great performances left in him. His title character is a cranky, misanthropic old coot with a taste for drink, a deep loneliness and a sudden sense of his own mortality … the sort of guy that the Paris, Texas actor can make a soulful meal out of. Actor-turned-filmmaker John Carroll Lynch has fashioned a real love letter to his lead with this drama, giving him a showcase for that hangdog expression and wounded eyes. Come for the Stanton adoration, stay for David Lynch giving the world the most moving soliloquy on tortoises ever.

Jonathan Furmanski

‘May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers’

Granted an all-access pass to film the North Carolina folk-rock band the Avett Brothers as they recorded their Rick Rubin-produced album True Sadness, directors Michael Bonfiglio and Judd Apatow – yes, that Judd Apatow – figured they’d get a decent behind-the-scenes look at the group’s creative process. They probably hadn’t bargained on Seth and Scott Avett and their fellow band mates dealing with family-related health problems, the dissolution of a marriage, parenthood and how to negotiate an ever-changing music industry while your hitting your peak moment of fame while their cameras were rolling. But in the process, the duo ended up catching not just a making-of doc but also a look at the importance of having folks’ backs during tough times and how to turn such ill-dealt hands into art. Kudos.


‘The Most Hated Woman in America’

An all-star cast (Melissa Leo, Adam Scott, Peter Fonda, Juno Temple, Mad Men‘s Vincent Katheiser) recount the stranger-than-fiction tale of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the woman who founded the American Atheists organization back in the early Sixties, helped to get Bible-reading out of schools and was later kidnapped and killed by one of her former employees. We don’t want to say Leo was born to play this fiery, take-no-shit woman, but we will say that it’s impossible to think of anyone else doing justice to this prickly pioneer, especially when it comes to the movie’s true-crime elements.

Jono White

‘On the Road’

British director Michael Winterbottom is no stranger to filming bands and odd bonus material (he’s the gent responsible for combining explicit sex scenes and early-Aughts Britpop/fuzz-rock live performances in 9 Songs), so you assume that his movie on neo-garage group Wolf Alice would be more than just a tour diary. And sure enough, our man has added in fictional characters who get hot and heavy in between sets and small-town gigs. No word on the drugs, but a definite yes on the sex and rock & roll aspects.

Courtesy of Theo Anthony

‘Rat Film’

It starts as a look into the professional and amateur pest-controllers (two words: rat fishing) who work Baltimore’s streets and somewhat neglected neighborhoods. Then Theo Anthony’s extraordinary essay-film-cum-social-issue doc begins delving into the city’s early racist urban-planning set-up, the use of dodgy eugenics in vermin extermination and how a video game that becomes an existential rumination on the universe – and suddenly you’ve been plunged into one of the most compelling, food-for-thought nonfiction movies of the past few years. Do not miss it.

‘Small Town Crime’

Drunk, disgraced – and did we mention drunk? – ex-cop Mike Kendall (John Hawkes) is hoping to redeem himself one day and rejoin the force. Then he stumbles across a body on the side of the road after driving home from a blackout bender, and decides that, rather than go to his old coworkers, he’ll track down whoever is responsible all by his lonesome. If you like neo-noirs with just a touch of Coenesque quirk and a lot of character actors/familiar faces (Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Michael Vartan, Anthony Anderson), this one’s for you. And if, like us, you’ve often wondered whether the Deadwood star and equally rangy costar Clifton Collins Jr. had every been photographed in the same room together, we now have concrete proof that they indeed have and are two separate people.

Van Redin

‘Song to Song’

Mileage may vary on Terrence Malick’s output since he went from being cinema’s J.D. Salinger to one of the more prolific American directors working today. But a new Malick movie is still a big deal, full stop, and his latest is set in what should be a fertile landscape for soul-searching: the Austin music scene. Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman are folks caught up in an art vs. commerce conundrum; everyone from Iggy Pop to John Lydon, Patti Smith to Florence Welch, Iron and Wine to the Arcade Fire allegedly show up as themselves. The trailer suggests the agony and the ecstasy we’ve come to expect from the man’s late-career work.

Eric LaPlante


Sylvio works for a debt-collection company, spending his days shredding paperwork and fielding follow-up payment calls. At night, he glumly eats his TV dinner and films hand-puppet shows featuring a balding, middle-aged salesman. A chance appearance on a Baltimore public-access talk show, where he breaks things on the set, turns him into an unlikely local celebrity. Also, he is an ape who wears sunglasses. Directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney take a one-joke premise and wring every ounce of mumble-goof absurdity possible from it, as well as some choice po-faced digs at showbiz phoniness and unexpected poignancy. If SXSW was smart, they’d announce a “surprise screening” of Kong: Skull Island and show this in that slot instead.

Lindsey Byrnes

‘Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live … and More’

You can’t throw a rock at the current/former indie-rock contingent without hitting a Big Star fan – Alex Chilton’s band is considered by many to be the greatest power-pop ensemble of all time. Which is why, when Chilton suddenly passed away two days before the group was supposed to play SXSW in 2010, it wasn’t surprising that a ton of famous fellow musicians and disciples came to Austin to join the surviving members onstage. This recording of the event finds members of Yo La Tengo, Wilco, R.E.M., the Posies and countless others ripping through Big Star tunes and collectively mourning the music world’s loss. Be prepared to tear up.

‘This Is Your Death’

Where does Reality TV have left to go, you wonder? According to actor-director Giancarlo Esposito’s scabrous, pitch-black satire, the answer is: televised competitive suicides. And yes, of course the show is a hit! We were curious to see what the once-and-future Gus Fring chose for a follow-up to his underrated behind-the-camera debut Gospel Hill (2008), but we have to admit that “surprisingly more relevant-than-ever take on our nation’s obsession with their 15 minutes of fame” would not have been our first guess. Brace yourself for this one.

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